The Best Zoos in the USA From Coast to Coast

panda enclosure

There's no doubt about it: Americans love zoos. The American Zoological Association (AZA) reports that there are over 2,800 licensed animal exhibitors across the United States, and 213 of these are AZA-accredited. That number represents 90% of the world’s AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.

The Best Zoos in the US

Zoo monkey
Image Credit: Lucas Seibert / Shutterstock.

It would take even the most dedicated animal lover years to visit every location on the list, so we've compiled a list of the best zoos in the US. These zoos are home to a range of animal species, and each one's commitment to conservation and naturalistic habitats makes it a standout spot for animal lovers to visit.

Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

With 160 acres of natural habitats, the massive Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, is a must-visit. This zoo boasts the world's largest indoor desert, the world's largest indoor swamp, and the largest indoor rainforest in North America. You'll also find other habitats, including African Grasslands, Asian Highlands, a butterfly and insect pavilion, an aquarium, and more. 

This zoo is packed with popular and unique animals to observe. Visitors can watch African elephants, snow leopards, Amur tigers, gorillas, sea lions, and countless other species roam their enclosures. This zoo also contains multi-species exhibits that allow visitors to see how species interact with one another. 

Behind the scenes, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo supports a strong scientific research program that benefits the animals within the zoo and worldwide. 

San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park, just north of San Diego. This 100-acre zoo is known for its naturalistic habitats. These habitats allow species that would typically coexist in the wild to live together in the zoo.

This zoo is home to the largest colony of kangaroos outside of Australia. The Australian adventure continues at the nearby San Diego Safari Park, where you can view the only two platypuses outside Australia. Visitors can also watch polar bears plunge and play in their pool, catch a glimpse of the endangered California Condor, and even spot the rare Harpy Eagle along the Eagle trail. 

You’ll also spot plenty of Australian plants growing around the San Diego Zoo. Many Australian-native botanicals thrive here because the climates are so similar. 

Lincoln Park Zoo

The Lincoln Park Zoo, tucked in among the skyscrapers of Chicago, is a relatively small zoo at just 35 acres. It's the fourth-oldest zoo in the nation and is one of just a few zoos where admission is free. 

Nearly 200 species are on exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo. In the McCormick Bird House, bird species that are extinct, endangered, or threatened in the wild can enjoy seven different naturalistic habitats and a free-flight aviary. The Regenstein Center for African Apes features lowland gorillas and chimpanzees in a naturalistic habitat in another part of the zoo. Seals, reptiles, small mammals, polar bears, and more are also exhibited. 

Woodland Park Zoo

Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo is home to what was considered the first immersion exhibit, which attempts to recreate the animal's natural habitat and gives visitors the sense that they are also in the animal's habitat. Now considered the best practice, this type of exhibit was groundbreaking in the 1970s when the Woodland Park Zoo opened its immersive gorilla enclosure. 

This award-winning zoo is a non-profit dedicated to saving animals and their habitats. More than 250 species live here, including the African Lion, Golden Lion Tamarin, Humboldt Penguin, and more animals from around the world. 

Conservation-minded visitors will be glad to know that this zoo's animals are cared for to the highest standards, as indicated by the Humane Certified seal from the American Humane Conservation program.

Smithsonian National Zoological Park

Commonly known as the National Zoo, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park is a fee-free zoo and a part of the Smithsonian Institution, located in Washington, D.C. This zoo was well-known as one of the few zoos that displayed Giant Pandas. Unfortunately, pandas Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Xiao Qi Ji returned to China on November 8, 2023. 

If you missed your chance to view the giant pandas, don't worry. This zoo is home to nearly 400 other species, including many critically endangered animals. Don't miss the smelly binturong on the Claws and Paws Pathway and the orangutans traveling along a 50-foot high suspended cable track called the O-line.

The Bird House is another must-visit part of the zoo, with completely bilingual displays and three open walk-through aviaries featuring shorebirds, ducks, colorful songbirds, and more. 

Bronx Zoo

Red Panda
Image Credit: Mathias Appel – CC0/Wiki Commons.

The Bronx Zoo is the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States by area. More than 6,000 species call this zoo home, 

This zoo has numerous opportunities for personal encounters with the animals, including cheetahs, penguins, sloths, and more. The Wild Asia Monorail is another star attraction, allowing guests to view animals such as the tiger, Indian rhino, and red panda in a natural setting, without glass or bars. 

Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden is the sixth oldest zoo in the United States, opening in 1865. Parts of the zoo have even been appointed as National Historic Landmarks. 

The Night Hunters building features low lights that allow visitors to observe the behaviors of nocturnal and predatory species like the clouded leopard, binturong, and fishing cat. 

The AZA-award-winning Jungle Trail exhibit features 2.5 acres of naturalized rainforest habitat with indoor and outdoor displays. Here, you can see primates like the Coquerel's sifaka, bonobo, orangutan, and other jungle creatures like the aye-aye. 

Brevard Zoo

The Brevard Zoo is celebrated as one of the top zoos in the United States for its commitment to creating naturalistic habitats, innovative enclosures, and the immersive and authentic wildlife experience it offers visitors. You can even take a kayak tour within the grounds; how many zoos can say that? 

This Melbourne, Fla., zoo's conservation efforts are top-notch, serving critically endangered Florida species like the Florida scrub jay and Frosted Flatwoods Salamander. They're also working hard to bring the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, the most endangered bird in the US, back from the brink of extinction. 

The Brevard Zoo is also nationally recognized for its educational programs, including direct partnership with nearby Brevard County Schools. 

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Even if you've yet to go to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus, Ohio, you've probably heard of its director emeritus, Jack Hanna. He played a pivotal role in establishing the zoo's reputation, bringing his passion for wildlife conservation to a global audience through television appearances.

Today, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is renowned for its conservation efforts, engaging exhibits, and state-of-the-art habitats that replicate natural environments. The zoo is also known for its efforts to breed critically endangered species. For example, 29 Mexican wolves, a species that has been extinct in the wild since the mid-20th century, have been born in the zoo since 1992. 

You'll find many unique animal viewing opportunities here. The Shores and Aquarium section of the zoo is one of the few places outside Florida where you can view manatees and is also the home of one of the largest displays of coral in the United States. 

Kansas City Zoo and Aquarium

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Floating King Lobster in the aquarium. Bright colorful shell, detailed colors.

Situated in the heart of Kansas City, Missouri, the Kansas City Zoo is celebrated for its engaging exhibits and commitment to wildlife conservation. Like the other zoos on our list, this zoo showcases a diverse range of animals in carefully designed habitats that mimic their natural environments.

One of its notable features is the Australia exhibit, offering a glimpse into the continent's unique wildlife, including kangaroos and koalas. This exhibit also features a walk-through aviary featuring Australian birds like the tawny frogmouth, magpie goose, and wompoo fruit dove.

The Tropics exhibit is another visitor favorite, with its vibrant array of tropical plants and animals. This year, the zoo also opened an aquarium that is included with zoo admission. This 650,000-gallon ocean aquarium brings over 8,000 ocean animals to the Midwest.